Sunday 26 May 2019

America's sweetheart Doris Day dies at 97

 

The late Doris Day
The late Doris Day

Doris Day, who has died aged 97, was cast so frequently in roles requiring her to assume an air of cheerful chastity that the film composer Oscar Levant was once prompted to boast he had met her "before she was a virgin".

Off-screen, she acquired a reputation for eschewing traditional Hollywood recreations like alcohol and drugs in favour of ice cream and soft drinks. This, together with her habit, acquired in her later years, of roaming the Californian countryside on a French bicycle in search of neglected domestic pets, meant that she became associated with the robust wholesomeness of her roles in films like 'Calamity Jane' and 'Young at Heart'.

She frequently declared herself to be puzzled by the public's perception of her as a girl who wouldn't say yes, and pointed out that she was more varied in scope than was commonly appreciated. Her parts in 'Love Me or Leave Me', in which she was "slugged and raped by Jimmy Cagney", and 'Midnight Lace', where she was "stalked by a murderous Rex Harrison" proved to be so reminiscent of her own disastrous experience of matrimony - her first husband was a wife-beater, the second deserted her, the third was a womanising fraud, and the last a health-food restaurateur - that she more than once collapsed on set.

It was, above all, the string of inoffensive but unremarkable comedies which she undertook with the encouragement of her third husband, bungling entrepreneur Marty Melcher - one of the parts she turned down was that of Mrs Robinson in 'The Graduate' - that effectively finished her cinema career in 1968.

Before her premature retirement, Doris had become one of the few film performers who could equally be regarded as a bona fide pop star; she was largely responsible for the 1950s vogue for the soundtrack album, and she had several international successes with pop singles, notably 'Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)', her biggest hit.

Her most impressive screen performances, in films like 'Love Me or Leave Me' and 'The Pyjama Game', were not generally the most lucrative: for most of Doris Day's admirers her magnum opus was 'Calamity Jane', which had her dressed in buckskin and confronting, with swaggering bravado, "Injun arrows thicker than porkypine quills".

The youngest of three children, she was born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff on April 3, 1922, in Cincinnati. Her father was a music teacher and choir master and her grandparents on both sides were German immigrants.

By age 16, she was singing numbers like 'St Louis Blues' and 'Jeepers, Creepers' with Barney Rapp's local band, and by 1940 she had found her niche touring North America with Les Brown and his Blue Devils.

She left the band to marry Al Jorden, a trombone player she had met in her time with Rapp. Jorden was fiercely unpopular with his fellow musicians: after months of attempting to come to terms with his maniacal jealousy, and suffering savage beatings, she began to incline towards the majority view.

She left Jorden, rejoined Les Brown, and was rewarded almost immediately with her first major hit, 'Sentimental Journey'. An impetuous marriage to a Blue Devil, George Weidler, then took her to California, where the couple lived in a trailer before Weidler left her for good and took a job as a sideman to Stan Kenton.

In 1948, Warner Brothers offered her her first screen part in 'Romance on the High Seas', despite her having burst into tears during the audition.

In her seven years under contract to Warners between 1948 and 1955, she was subjected to a hectic schedule which produced 17 films, 15 of which were musicals. By the time she had completed 'Lullaby of Broadway' in 1951, her only serious box-office rival was Betty Grable. In the same year, she married her manager Marty Melcher, a man she would later describe as "venal and devious".

Though she appeared to be the picture of tomboyish good health on board the Deadwood Stage, she collapsed with a nervous breakdown following the completion of 'Calamity Jane' in 1953.

She almost turned down the part of Jo McKenna in Hitchcock's 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' (1956). Although uneasy with Hitchcock's "uninterventionist" style of directing, she gave an intuitive performance.

Towards the end of the 1950s, her choice of films was increasingly dictated by Melcher; his growing influence led to her appearing in movies like his own production, 'Julia' (1956), a low point even by his own lamentable standards.

Money-spinners like 'Pillow Talk', with Rock Hudson, or 'A Touch of Mink' (1962), which starred Cary Grant, failed to extend the public's perception of her range as an actress.

The resulting temptation to play safe coloured her last seven films, of which all, with the arguable exception of 'The Glass-Bottomed Boat' (1966), were dreadful.

When Melcher died in 1968 Doris learnt that he had left her debts totalling half-a -million dollars and a signed contract for an ill-scripted TV series. With new scripts and production staff, she eventually managed to gain some success with the TV shows, and went on to host several lavish TV specials, notably in 1971 (with Rock Hudson) and 1975 (with John Denver).

In the late 1970s, she devoted her energies increasingly to the Actors and Others for Animals organisation, and founded the San Fernando Valley Kennel, which housed more than 300 dogs.

By 1980, her fourth husband Barry Comden (divorced in 1981) had been moved out of the house because, as he told a newspaper, Doris needed the space for "extra dogs".

In 1989, Doris was awarded the Golden Globe's Cecil B DeMille Award for lifetime achievement. In 2004, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom but declined to attend the ceremony because of her fear of flying. For the same reason, she was honoured in absentia with a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement in Music in 2008.

Irish Independent

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